The college years are usually full of angst, longing, uncertainty and growth. The main characters in Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding experience all sorts of conflicting emotions and life experiences as they each struggle to define who they are within the small rural Wisconsin campus of Westish College; and who they will become when they leave college.
This book has been billed as a baseball story. There are plenty of pages devoted to the discussion of baseball philosophy (the Zen of Baseball if you will) and lots of descriptions of baseball games. For those of you who aren’t baseball fans or who normally shy away from sports centered books I’d suggest stepping up and (ahem) taking a swing at this book anyway. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
To me this story was reminiscent of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or David James Duncan’s The Brothers K. Like The Art of Fielding, both of these books had strong baseball themes; and like The Art of Fielding, they were both about so much more than baseball. At more than 500 pages, Harbach has given himself a broad enough canvas to also be able to throw in some Herman Melville history and other 19th century poets and philosophers. Guert Affenlight, the current Westish College President became a Melville scholar and changed his intended career because of a discovery about Melville that he made as a Westish undergrad. The Westish teams are called the “Harpooners” and Melville is a symbolic mascot for the campus.
The story centers around five main characters. Henry Skrimshander is the phenom short-stop recruited by Mike Schwartz who is himself just a sophomore at Westish when the story opens. Schwartz is a motivator and mentor to his teammates, but he has higher aspirations for his life than just coaching. Owen Dunne is Henry’s erudite gay roommate who also happens to be an exceptional batter on the Westish baseball team. Pella, Guert’s daughter, arrives back in Wisconsin the day that Henry makes his first ever throwing error. Owen is seriously injured and hospitalized by the throw. Guert is so preoccupied by his unexpected obsession with Owen that he barely has time to acknowledge that his daughter has fled back to him, leaving her depressing marriage behind in San Francisco.
How all the characters react to the consequences of that one errant throw propel the story arc for the remaining bulk of the book. If the story seems overly tinged with soap opera angst the fault lies with my abridged retelling of the bare plotlines. The book feels lively and character driven as Harbach takes his time to tease out the nuances of the story. Overall, I thought Harbach only copped out with the resolution of the relationship between Guert and Owen. Otherwise, this memorable story about friendship and coming of age reminded me how tough it was to work through all the issues the college years presented.
Krista lives just outside the urban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. Lamentably, her work as a technical writer and business analyst often interferes with her reading which is a true passion.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Little, Brown and Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.